By MARK FRYER
Horn ok please" says the sign stamped across the rear end of every truck on the busy streets of Mumbai.
This instruction is obeyed more faithfully than any religious commandment. Day and night, the city air is rich with the sound of drivers diligently horning.
They horn to say "coming through", they horn to say "don't go there", they horn to say "yes, I know my taxi just demolished part of your scooter - get over it". And in the microseconds when none of the above applies, they horn a bit more, just in case.
If you can't afford a car, you can still make a contribution to the din - just keep ringing that good old-fashioned bicycle bell at every opportunity.
There are cities that sneak up on you with a quiet, understated charm. Mumbai is not among them. Mumbai doesn't so much sneak up as get you in a headlock and whack you around the ears, demanding you to take notice of it.
But if it scores zero points for quiet charm, in contrast it rates a perfect 10 for sheer intensity.
First impressions, straight off the plane: it's crowded; 15 million people will do that. And steaming hot. And noisy (see above). And pungent - top notes of spice overlay something reminiscent of last week's catch left too long in the chillybin. And yes, the beggars and touts are extraordinarily persistent, whether it's the vendors selling misshapen balloons, purveyors of sidewalk ear-cleaning services (yes, ear-cleaning), or the rather more poignant mothers with small babies asking for food.
But there's always something to see.
The locals will be only too happy to show you around. "You come in my taxi and see all the sights," suggested the eager would-be escort who zeroed in as I took an early-morning walk.
No sale, so he hit me with his biggest shot: "you come and see hundreds of men doing their washing". Not quite what one thinks of as an exotic attraction, but top marks for originality.
Okay then, if laundry wasn't my thing, how about something not quite so clean? "You come back tonight and I take you to see all the teenage girls dancing in the disco," he offered as I made my escape via a daring attempt at crossing six lanes of speeding traffic.
But he was right about the laundry; the sight of thousands of men doing their washing the old-fashioned way does have a peculiar fascination when you're more accustomed to pushing a few buttons on the Fisher & Paykel.
Every day, five thousand washer-men - dhobi wallahs, they call them - fan out across Mumbai, collecting the city's dirty laundry. Back at the communal open-air washing area - the dhobi ghat - they start by marking each item with indelible ink, to make sure Mrs Patel's smalls don't get mixed up with Mr Singh's socks.
Now the action begins. Working in hundreds of small concrete tubs, the dhobi wallahs scrub, beat, pound and wring each grubby item into submission. Once it's clean, everything gets hung out to dry, sorted, ironed, bundled up and taken back to its owners. It's a miracle of organisation on a grand scale.
Same goes for the dabba wallahs, who you'll see from late morning as they hurry around the city, picking up the lunches which devoted Mumbai housewives have cooked and packed into multi-compartmented metal containers, or tiffins. The dabba wallahs pick up a stack of packed lunches from their designated territory, carry them into town, deliver them to the intended recipient, then come back to pick up the empties.
Even though each tiffin may pass through several sets of hands, so the story goes, a mistake by a dabba wallah is rarer than a Mumbai car without a horn.
For one more demonstration of organisation in the midst of apparent chaos, take a deep breath and dive into the city's Crawford Market. Don't worry where you're headed; the chances of navigating your way to anywhere specific aren't great anyway. Best just to go with the flow.
The street plan may be a little free-form, but it soon becomes apparent that the market is the last word in specialisation.
See the fascinating street of shops selling nothing but electrical fittings. If the signs offering "best bakelite switchgear" aren't sufficiently titillating, just wait until you get to the street of plumbing supplies. And if that's not excitement enough, there's always the lane devoted to selling nothing but copies of Tupperware containers.
If you're not in the market for a 300 amp circuit breaker or a copper s-bend, the streets of produce-sellers are a better bet; even if you're just looking, the piles of fruits and vegetables, many of them unfamiliar, put your local supermarket in the shade.
But if you want to buy something to take home, the fabric shops are a better proposition - bargains include silk scarves and pashmina shawls for a fraction of the price you'd expect to pay.
If the markets are a little intimidating - and, despite having shown the least flicker of interest, it can be difficult to escape without buying at least something - Mumbai has several government-sponsored shops selling a variety of Indian handicrafts.
If the markets don't pump the adrenalin, there are always the taxis. You could wimp out and go for the air-conditioned version,recognisable by their blue colour scheme, but for a real experience try one of the older yellow and black versions which swarm through Mumbai's streets by the thousand - 50,000 or 60,000 of them, depending on who you ask.
These are based on a late 1950s-early '60s Fiat model, and what they lack in refinement they more than compensate for with a certain joie de vivre. Who needs an amusement park when for a few dollars you can career through the traffic at top speed, squeeze through gaps with millimetres to spare, spontaneously change lanes and watch cyclists and scooter-riders scatter in fear.
Once you reach your destination, there is the added thrill of working out the fare.
This is achieved by taking the number on the meter, multiplying by your age, taking away the number you first thought of, and adding a couple of zeroes.
No, really, it's not that simple. The problem is, inflation has left Mumbai's taxi meters behind. Instead of adjusting the meters, someone hit on the idea of just multiplying the amount on the meter by a certain amount. Right now, the certain amount is 13. If the meter shows 20 rupees, it really means 260 rupees. Dead straightforward, at least until you start adding on the surcharge for late night travel and any other variables.
If multiplying by 13 has never been your strong point, or if your night out has involved anything stronger than a couple of Kingfisher beers, ask to see the rate card, or negotiate a fixed price before you set out.
Just watching Mumbai's traffic is an entertainment in itself. India may be one of the world's fastest-growing economies, but the streets are still dominated by those ancient taxis, fleets of white Hindustani Ambassadors, instantly recognisable to anyone of sufficient vintage as 1950s-model Morris Oxfords, cycles and scooters by the thousand, the odd ox-cart and pedestrians who throw caution to the wind.
Away from the traffic the sights include an eclectic mix of architecture; the British may have departed almost 60 years ago, but not before decorating the city with great piles of elaborate gothic stonework, including the university and the Victoria Terminus, surely one of the most elaborately decorated railway stations on the planet.
Other buildings blend bits of east and west, notably the venerable Taj Mahal Hotel, whose designers appear to have plundered every known architectural style - a little Florentine here, a little Moorish there, bits of India scattered about. Even if you can't afford to stay there, it's worth wandering into the lobby just for a look at the grand staircase and its domed roof.
If temples are your thing, there's no shortage thanks to the city's seven major religious groups (since you asked: Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews and Zoroastrians).
And, on any piece of open ground, you may come across disciples devotedly practising India's other major religion, cricket, with games of varying formality.
History buffs can visit Gandhi's house, for a reminder that India's struggle for independence was neither short nor peaceful.
But the real fun is out on the streets, just watching people go about their business.
India's explosive economic growth means there's no shortage of that good old cliche, the study in contrasts.
It starts before you touchdown; all those blue rectangles on the ground are the plastic tarpaulin roofs of squatter camps, built hard up against the airport perimeter fence.
Downtown, there's a sacred cow near the sign advertising "Mumbai cyber safety week 2004". Behind a particularly fragrant open drain, a glossy billboard promotes the next high-rise apartment development.
One last thing - don't worry if you call it "Bombay", as it hasn't been since 1996. The locals don't seem too fussed. Maybe they can't hear for all that horning.
* Mark Fryer travelled to Mumbai courtesy of Qantas
By MARK FRYER